Advocates gather in Dodge City to discuss immigration

March 2, 2012

     “We are a nation of immigrants. I think we forget that. Mine were German immigrants in the 1880s. If we told those stories more, if we remembered that, we might become more welcoming. “

— Kathy Denhardt,
mobility manager for Dodge City and Ford County

DODGE CITY — Nearly three dozen people from throughout southwest Kansas packed a meeting room in the Catholic cathedral in Dodge City Thursday afternoon, all with the same question: How can we better ensure that immigrants are treated fairly and humanely?

• • • • • • • •

The Sisters of St. Joseph of Concordia had organized the meeting to bring together representatives from social service agencies, religious congregations, city governments, political entities and the community college as well as individuals who advocate for immigrant rights.

But, as organizer Cheryl Lyn Higgins pointed out at the beginning of the meeting, the Concordia-based congregation of Catholic women doesn’t presume to have all the answers.

“Our goal is to become better informed advocates for our brothers and sisters, whether documented or undocumented,” she said. “I believe, collectively, we can generate the outcome we all want to see.”

Higgins, who is coordinator of the sisters’ Neighborhood Initiatives office in Concordia, had organized a similar meeting in Salina in January.

Both meetings come on the heels of the congregation’s unanimous support last November for a “statement on immigration” that calls for a comprehensive national immigration policy, including:

  • A pathway to lawful permanent residency and citizenship for the undocumented persons currently living in the United States;
  • A process to reduce the backlog of family visas in order to ensure family unity and reunification;
  • A guest worker program that ensures labor protections and equitable wages;
  • A border security and enforcement policy that is humane; and
  • A process whereby undocumented students living in the United States can earn a college degree and become gainfully employed.

Higgins and the other members of the congregation’s immigration committee — Sisters Esther Pineda, Anna Marie Broxterman and Judy Stephens — handed out copies of the statement during Thursday’s Dodge City meeting.

Many participants had ideas on what needs to happen, particularly in southwest Kansas where the Hispanic population is continuing to grow.

Garden City Mayor John Doll said that a pressing need is a local immigration office.

“People now have to go to Wichita or Kansas City,” Doll said. “Having services available here is a key.”

For Maria Musick of Dodge City, another key is learning about the immigration issue “so we can tell the difference between fact and myth.”

Johnny Dunlap, chairman of the Ford County Democratic Party and a representative of the League of United Latin American Citizens, agreed — but he added that action is also needed.

“We need to raise awareness on the hearings (legislative) in Topeka and in D.C.,” he said. “We need to inform our communities and immigrants so that they may speak against  (proposed anti-immigrant legislation).”

Sister Esther Pineda, who was in Topeka during February for hearings at the Capitol, reported to the group on the status of several bills being considered by the state Legislature.

She urged the group to pay particular attention to House Bill 2576, the so-called “Anti-Harboring Bill,” as well as House Bill 2712, a measure that would require the Kansas Department of Labor to identify labor shortages and then create something of a “guest worker” program to help eliminate those shortages. The bill, which was drafted by a coalition that includes agriculture groups and the Kansas Chamber of Commerce, has drawn strong support from immigrant rights advocates across the state and equally strong opposition from Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach and others.

Arturo Ponce, who works with the United Methodist Mexican American Ministries in Liberal, said that three elements are needed to advocate for immigrant rights: collaboration, cooperation and communication.

“This meeting, bringing us all together, is an example of all three,” Ponce said.

But Robert Vinton, ESL/migrant director for USD 443, expressed concern that more needs to be done.     “There hasn’t been an adequate response from this country that allows immigrants to stay,” he said. “In 20 or 30 years from now, these people are going to become people we’re going to need to depend on. They can become lawyers or doctors. We as a country have been fighting it, but at some point we have to see that it’s reality.”

At the end of the two-hour session Higgins said the sisters’ Immigration Committee is compiling all the information and ideas from both this meeting and the earlier one in Salina, as a first step in an action plan. “What I’m hearing today is that we need to be more vocal,” she said.




Sisters bring immigration rights advocates together

January 19, 2012

This afternoon's meeting began with a prayer — and Mary Salazar, with the Univisión affiliate in Wichita, was there to report on it for the TV station's Spanish-language newscast.


Just days after Catholic bishops had convened a national conference in Denver on immigration policies and ways to move the issue to the forefront of political debate, a much smaller group of people from throughout central and western Kansas gathered in Salina Thursday to talk about immigrants in the state.


• • • • • • •

Nearly two dozen Catholic sisters, social service workers and other citizens took part in the “Conversation about Immigration” organized by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Concordia. They had been invited by Cheryl Lyn Higgins, the coordinator of Neighborhood Initiatives, an office within the Concordia congregation that is working with the sisters’ Immigration Committee.

Higgins said this meeting — and a second one scheduled for March 1 in Dodge City — were designed to “develop a better picture of what is available for immigrants and what needs to be done.”

Many of the participants brought to the meeting passion and a certain level of frustration over limited services, funding cuts and a lack of understanding among both politicians and voters.

“There are a lot of people who really do know our (economic) need for the immigrant,” said Sister Therese Bangert, a Sister of Charity of Leavenworth and a longtime immigration rights advocate. “But we have to be more effective in getting that message out. Maybe, eventually, our own self-interest will move us (toward immigration reform).”

Sister Therese was among those last year who lobbied against Kansas House Bill 2372, which was authored by Secretary of State Kris Kobach and which contained provisions modeled after the Arizona law — also written by Kobach — that is still being challenged as unconstitutional. The Kansas House voted 84-40 against pulling HB 2372 from its Judiciary Committee, where the bill was tabled indefinitely.

But, Sister Therese said, that does not mean Kobach has given up his agenda on immigration. “He has said this year he’ll divide that bill into maybe nine little bills that won’t attract that much attention,” she said.

Sister Mary Ellen Loch of the Congregation of St. Joseph in Wichita said that educating laypeople of all faiths remains a crucial element.

While the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, the Federation of Sisters of St. Joseph and numerous individual church organizations and religious communities – including the Sisters of St. Joseph of Concordia — have called for national immigration reform, Sister Mary Ellen said, “The people (of the Church) have to see this as an issue for all of us. We’re not going to change anything until we change the spiritual attitude of the people.”


Cynthia Colbert, executive director of Catholic Charities in Wichita, said that after people are educated about the issue, they can apply political pressure. But, she noted, that takes money.

“We need a political action committee, we need a lobbyist,” she said. “Right now there’s no unified organization to get people calling legislators.”

Colbert added that while there are many Kansans in support of national immigration reform, there are also some who stand adamantly opposed to that position. “We’ve got to speak to those in the middle,” she said. “We’ve got to help them understand why this issue is so important to us, as people of faith and as Americans.”

Sister Judy Stephens, a member of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Concordia’s Immigration Committee, said that people in Wichita and other cities across Kansas need also to understand that services for immigrants are mostly limited to urban areas – despite the need for them in rural, agricultural areas where many new immigrants may work. “There is a Hispanic, Spanish-speaking family in virtually every little town, and yet there are no bilingual services outside of Salina, Wichita and Topeka,” Sister Judy said.

A Concordia resident who is fluent in Spanish, Sister Judy frequently provides informal translation services for people in the Concordia area.

Higgins said the sisters’ Immigration Committee will take all the comments and information gathered at Thursday’s meeting — and well as information from the upcoming Dodge City session — and compile it, “to see what steps we can take.” The goal, she said, is to find ways to work together collectively.